Spinning Into Butter Notes

9389_content_Rebecca-Gilman-1 Rebecca Gilman was born in 1965 in Birmingham, Alabama. She left home to attend Middlebury College in Vermont—which would inspire the fictional Belmont College of Spinning Into Butter—but returned to Alabama to finish her degree at Birmingham-Southern College with a BA in English. After getting her MFA at the University of Iowa’s Playwrights Workshop, Gilman was first a temp worker and later a resident writer at Chicago Dramatists. She continued to write despite receiving over 150 rejection letters from resident theatres because, in her words, “it was cheaper than therapy.”

Fortunately, her 1997 play The Glory of Living was picked up by The Circle Theatre in Chicago at the urging of the artistic director of Chicago Dramatists, who felt that Gilman’s work was “a very important piece of writing.” The show—which addresses child abuse, rape, and murder—was an overwhelming success. The show launched Gilman’s theatrical career and received the American Theatre Critics Association’s Osborn Award and the Evening Standard Theatre Award for Most Promising Playwright (of which she is the only American ever to win). She was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize (2001) for this work. With her early work, she gained a reputation for writing works centered around characters in thrilling, yet macabre situations.

Being born just two years after civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. penned his famous Letter from Birmingham Jail, it may come as no surprise that Gilman, after growing up in such a contentious time in Alabama’s history, would go on to write a play about a woman’s struggle to overcome hate and racism. What makes Spinning Into Butter so powerful is her approach. Instead of tackling the issue of overt, stereotypically Southern racism, Spinning Into Butter addresses the underlying biases of some of the most “liberal” minded people: people like Sarah Daniels, dean of students at Belmont College. The play explores political correctness and prejudice in modern society, especially in higher education.

The play premiered at the Goodman Theatre in 1999 and, after critical acclaim, went on to be performed at the Lincoln Center Theatre the next year. Hope Davis, who took on the role of Sarah in New York, was praised by critics for her “excellent” performance. The play received the Joseph Jefferson Award for Best New Play and the Roger L. Stevens Award from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays, as well as being included in Time magazine’s “Top Ten Plays of 1999” list.

Barely a year before Spinning Into Butter first took the stage, the FBI reported around 250 incidents reported on college campuses that constitute hate crimes. In the same year, when officials at the University of Indiana encouraged students to report incidents they felt may be hate crimes, almost the same amount were logged at that school alone. Data as recent as 2015-2016 from the FBI reports over 5800 single-bias incidents on college campuses with well over half involving victims who were targeted based on race or ethnicity. Over two thousand of these reports were crimes against property, with a majority being the kind of vandalism dramatized in Gilman’s work. A rise in hate crimes on college campuses was reported following the 2016 presidential election, prompted by the victory of Donald Trump, who used his platform during the presidential race to promote hateful rhetoric against immigrants, Latinx Americans, African-Americans, women, Jewish Americans, and Muslim Americans. LGBT+ people also described hostility and violence towards their community, allegedly due to anti-LGBT laws advocated for by incoming Vice President Mike Pence and other politicians.

These events and statistics reveal that, though many people would like to believe the issue of racial bias in America is behind us, there is still an enormous amount of work to be done to foster a society of true racial equality. While characters like Sarah denounce racism, they refuse to address their own preexisting prejudices—just as many people have trouble doing today.

Gilman currently works as a professor at Northwestern University. She is a core faculty member in their Writing for Screen and Stage MFA program. She serves on the board of the Dramatists Guild of America. In 2008, she was the recipient of the Harper Lee Award for Alabama’s Distinguished Writer of the Year.